Re-reading The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936
by Walter Benjamin
Also know as The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, this essay by Walter Benjamin has been published in three different versions. The definitive second, or “Ur,” version, as Benjamin stated, has been published most recently in the 2008 collection of essays, edited by Michael Jennings, et al. in a book titled after this famous essay. And this is a famous essay—rediscovered in the 1960s in the wake of the age of youthful discontent, and read and re-read until this day. The question is, almost one hundred years later, is this essay anything more than a predictor of what we already know?
Much has been made of the fact that, when it was originally published in 1936 by the exiled Frankfurt School, publishing in German in their new home in New York City, the essay was shortened. Or according to some, the essay was censored because the now famous last lines: Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. In his excellent 1997 account of Benjamin’s life, Walter Benjamin. An Intellectual Biography, Bernd Witt explained that the writer understood quite well the precarious position of the exiled Marxist Jews in a nation that, on a good day, was barely tolerant of Jews and terrified of the Communists.
Benjamin agreed to having the essay shortened. After all, the Frankfurt School was paying him a stipend and he needed the publication. In addition, Benjamin was a professional writer. Writers get edited; that is the nature of the work and not writer expects to have his or her work published in an untouched form. Those who make charges against Theodor Adorno, claiming he had personal issues with Benjamin, are factually off the mark and are naïve in assuming that his peer group considered any writer’s work as being sacrosanct.
Benjamin himself had stated that one of the reasons why he left Berlin was because he was having difficulties in getting his work published. Although he left the city very soon after the Nazis came into power, at the insistence of the wife of Theodor Adorno, Gretel Karplus, the repression of Jewish intellectuals, especially one of Marxist sensibilities, made his writing career hopeless. Witt quotes Benjamin as writing, “…The terror directed at any attitude or mode of expression that does not completely correspond to the official one has reached a virtually unsurpassable level…” And so, Benjamin was forced into exile and went in 1933 to Paris where the “Work of Art” essay was written.
This work is best understood as a dual project between Benjamin’s flâneur wanderings throughout Paris that produced the Arcades project and his observation of the Nazi use of mass media in Germany. Benjamin was uniquely positioned to understand how expertly Hitler utilized new technologies of communication, because, in an unusual move for a writer, he was an early radio personality from 1929. Witt points out that “As one of the pioneers in this new medium, he may have gained here the experiences that enabled him, in the great essays written in exile, to formulate a theory of non-auratic art.” According to Witt, Benjamin thought that he could provoke his listener to counter the “consumer mentality” of the listener’s passivity and that he hoped to create a model for the “people’s art.”
Benjamin acquired this notion of provoking the radio audience from his friend, theatrical producer, Bertold Brecht, who later spoke of the death of Walter Benjamin as the “first casualty of Hitler’s war on intellectuals.” Indeed, the two writers were very much in tune in their interpretation of Marxism, the ideological enemy of the Nazis. Neither were scholarly Marxists, like those of the Frankfurt School. Both were what might be called practical or activist Marxists who favored intervention by using popular culture to question conventional values.
For Brecht, the theater could still be an agent of revelation and transformation. The playwright sought to break through the illusion of realism projected from the stage by shaking the complacency of the audience who was passively soaking in ideology disguised as “the theater.” Brecht shattered with “Fourth Wall” or the subterfuge that the play was a reflection of reality. By calling attention to the inherent artificiality of mass entertainment, Brecht hoped to challenge the bourgeois dominance of the social discourse. Popular culture could be hijacked for the purpose of an ideological critique. Benjamin called Brecht’s techniques of estrangement “Epic Theater” and gave a radio lecture on the playwright and wrote an essay, “Epic Theater,” on his Marxist ideas about jolting bourgeoisie complacency.
Indeed the basis of Marxism is critique—an analysis of society used to break through False Consciousness—and mass media presented an unprecedented and novel opportunity to challenge the dominate ideology. Popular culture was a new way to indoctrinate the masses and the Nazis had seized the apparatus of communication and entertainment and turned the new mechanics of propaganda into a powerful weapon of indoctrination. The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction was written in 1936 in the wake of years of Nazi rallies, designed by Albert Speer and after the successful films of Leni Reifenstahl. Benjamin’s essay needs to be understood within this cultural context. Although the writer could not have foreseen the Holocaust, he was obviously aware that mass media presented both a danger and a promise. Thanks to the effectiveness of the use of film and radio and large gatherings the Nazis had lulled the population into acceptance of what would be a series of horrifying acts starting in 1937 on Kristallnacht.
For Benjamin, that continuing promise of Marxism could be found in mechanical reproduction. Here was a mode of production of information and knowledge that could reach the masses and present them with a social critique. Where Benjamin saw the hopeful possibilities of reproductive technologies, his friend, Theodor Adorno, an unapologetic snob, disagreed and saw mass culture as the final annihilation of “autonomous art”. Benjamin was less interested in whether or not popular culture was art. In contrast to Adorno, perhaps as the result of his interest in Jewish mysticism, Benjamin was greatly concerned with the loss of the “aura” of art and investigated a different aspect of artistic autonomy.
The concept of the “Aura” of the work of art was inspired by Benjamin’s experiences with the old sections of Paris, the Arcades, where he strolled, like a twentieth century Baudelaire. But unlike the poet, Benjamin was not reveling in the symptoms of modernité, he was searching for a past that was at the point of vanishing. It is here at the “vanishing point” that the past can be grasped before it becomes invisible and confined to the discourse of history. In the same way, the authentic work, surrounded in “aura” was vanishing, overwhelmed by a technology that was mechanical and ungovernable and indiscriminate. In many ways Benjamin foretold the “flattening” effect manifested so clearly in postmodernism—everything would have the same value through the miracle of total reproducibility and universal availability.
Part Two of this essay on Walter Benjamin will examine the concept of “aura.”
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.